What’s Cleaner, An Electric Truck or Plugin Hybrid Truck? It Depends… (Part 2)

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In Part 1, I discussed the methodology and assumptions that went into my comparison of the F-150 Lightning, the F-150 Hybrid, and a hypothetical plugin hybrid version of the truck. Now, let’s see how they stack up.

I discuss my methods in Part 1, but to briefly recap, the production emissions are based on vehicle weight (not including any batteries, but including any ICE parts), and then the emissions estimate for the battery pack. From the factory, the hybrid version of the truck has the lowest emissions of any of them, followed by our hypothetical PHEV, and with the 131 kWh battery-only EV version of the vehicle looking the dirtiest.

But, the estimated emissions of the vehicles tell a different story about each truck’s future. The hybrid makes the most emissions per mile, at 373 grams of CO2e (per an EPA conversion from 24 MPG). The Lightning has far lower emissions. The PHEV, with a built-in assumption of getting plugged in 90% of the time (I discuss this assumption more in Part 1), is noticeably higher than the EV, but it’s not a drastic difference.

Keep in mind that this mostly applies to people who commute and take the truck out of town on the weekend, or commercial trucks that drive less than 60 miles daily. Users that fall outside of this scenario are not represented on this chart’s PHEV line (and I’ll get to those scenarios later).

With limitations in mind, what happens to total “so far” emissions once these trucks hit the road? Let’s look at the graph:

Because the hybrid emits so much more CO2 compared to the power plants that are making juice for the Lightning and the PHEV (most of the time), it doesn’t take long for the hybrid to lose the battle for who’s the cleanest. The lines cross before 50,000 miles, and then the trucks keep on truckin’. The electric trucks handily beat the hybrid, and it only gets worse for the non-plugin hybrid as the trucks march on to 300,000 miles.

But, the red and the yellow line look like an orange line for most of the timeline here. That’s because it takes more than 150,000 miles for the BEV truck to make up for all of the emissions it took for the battery pack to be produced. Even if well cared for, the Lightning truck isn’t beating the PHEV truck by much at 300,000 miles. Avoiding gas burning that last 10% of the time just doesn’t really make up for all the carbon that went into making 131 kWh of battery cells for the Lightning.

In This Scenario, BEV Trucks Are Probably Not Worth The Costs In 2023

If you’re going to plug your truck in every night, drive less than 60 miles (30 in winter up north) and spend less than 10% of your time on trips where you’d let the truck act like a hybrid, the emissions aren’t really going to be better enough for that to be a serious consideration. Plus, the PHEV should be a lot cheaper than the Lightning (if Ford made one).

On the personal level there are several drawbacks to the BEV over the 10% plugged in PHEV.

The biggest one is probably towing. I explore it more in this article, but the issue is basically that you lose a lot of range when towing. In the gas or hybrid truck, losing range just means more visits to gas stations, and gas stations are everywhere. Plus, the gas station only takes a few minutes while a charging station takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. Driving the unloaded truck keeps charging stops to a minimum, but towing means spending a lot of time at these stops.

Worse, you might not have enough range to get to the next station. This is a bigger problem with towing, but there are many rural areas that you’d struggle to get to with today’s charging networks. Over the next five years, this problem will mostly go away, as the Infrastructure Bill puts in more stations. But, that’s five years, and if you were buying a truck right now, that’s a significant time without the truck’s full capability.

On the societal level, it’s also not great to be getting people in big trucks with big batteries right now. The thing is, battery supplies are still ramping up for the EV transition. If we use up the available supply putting wealthier people in big trucks with big batteries, that leaves no affordable small batteries for the rest of us. In my hypothetical scenario, with a 35 kWh battery replacing a 131 kWh battery, that saves almost 100 kWh for other people to have in their vehicles.

That’s enough saved for a Model 3, a Mach-E, or several plugin hybrid cars, and the environmental cost of making it a PHEV instead of a BEV is minimal. So, given those choices, I’m really hesitant to support the BEV truck. The initial environmental costs are just too high to make up for themselves compared to the PHEV driven 10% as a hybrid.

50% Hybrid & Never Plugged In

Before anybody bites my head off, I do want to add an important caveat to this again: this is only true for somebody who mostly drives on electric power and plugs it in all the time. Plugging the truck in and driving it on battery power only half the time more than offsets the BEV’s production emissions, and never plugging it in puts it where the hybrid is (but with a higher purchase price).

This is why we need to be really careful about how we structure incentives with PHEVs. If there’s a benefit to a PHEV that someone can get without plugging it in, such as access to carpool lanes, people who can’t plug them in will buy them. If they cost more than the hybrid and there’s no other benefit than fuel savings, people wouldn’t pay the extra for them unless they intend to plug them in. We also need to discourage the practice of employers not reimbursing for electricity for take-home cars that are plugin hybrids.

That having been said, I’d rather see someone choose the PHEV and plug it in half the time than see them just buy the hybrid. We aren’t going to get everybody to buy an electric truck, but the PHEV may be a much easier sale. Or, even worse, let’s see what happens when somebody buys the V8 truck:

As you can see, the V8 F-150’s emissions leave the chart space the other trucks fit on. It takes a lot less emissions to build it, but it spits out emissions so fast that it more than makes up for it. If somebody is shopping a V8 or a plugin hybrid they’re only going to plug in half the time, I’d still rather see them choose the PHEV or even the hybrid if they’d consider it.

In Part 3, I’m going to take a look at what these charts look like once you add solar charging at home to the mix, and then discuss towing.

All chart images provided by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1884 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba